"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


on an added note...

How funny is it that the Titans offices are at Baptist Sports Park? That pretty much sums up Nashville, come to think.

so the second plane hit at at 9:02

People are a little freaked out.

Two planes crashed in the last 48 hours. One was headed to Goma, and the other took off from here, and both were UN flights. (That article says otherwise, but my understanding is that it had something to do with the UN one way or the other.). The pilots on both flights were South African. It's generally considered better to be on a plane flown by South Africans than by anybody else, excluding the humanitarian flights the French and Americans run. (They are the most likely to be sober - and licensed.)

As my friend Christine said, "We expect crashes from the local airplanes, but not from our flights." A sad but true statement.

I'll only be flying Kenya Airways, Rwandair Express, and British Airways from here on out.

In other news, some of my friends had to be evacuated from their post in South Kivu. The Mai-Mai militias were threatening the town, and them. They're the only international aid group in that small town. Pretty scary.

feel like texas when i'm uphere tennessee

So the big day is here. What does the future hold for our boy Vince? Who will take him? Will it be Tennessee? So Houston doesn't want you? (And is obviously a tiny bit crazy? Note to Houston: defenses do win games, but that's not enough if your offense has no one who can run or catch the ball.)

It's okay, Vince. Tennessee should want you if they have half a clue (an admittedly doubtful premise). We'd love to have you in the neighborhood - lots of Titans like living in Franklin! He may not be as pretty as Leinart, but Vince is an incredible player and whoever passes him up is going to regret it down the line. If there's any justice in this world, Reggie Bush should have to go spend life as a New York Jet.

the sound of the truth

There's a very interesting piece on religious leaders' reactions to the immigration debate in the Dallas Morning news. This tension over the appropriate response to our country's economic dependence on illegal immigrants while wanting to have effective, legal enforcement of border security isn't going to go away - especially when you look at it from a faith-based point of view. My friend Leigh wrote an outstanding, thoughtful study for the BGCT a couple of years ago that addressed these very questions - write the CLC and they'll send you a copy.

Speaking of church and home, Daddy texted me to say that there's a review of the January 22 sermon at my church in Texas Monthly. That was the last service I was in town for. Kindof surreal to be reading about it here. I miss my church. I miss sermons in English. I miss non-fundamentalist-influenced theology. I miss having a preacher who goes beyond the surface to delve into really important questions. One more month.


common ground

Music notes for those of us not lucky enough to be at MerleFest on KGSR's dime:
  • Today's KEXP song-of-the-day is "Exodus Damage" by John Vanderslice. It's a great song, first recommended on Texas in Africa by my attorney a couple of weeks ago. You can download it for FREE on itunes. Definitely download it - it's a great track.
  • I really, really like the new Centro-Matic album, Fort Recovery. Especially the opening track. And "I See Through You" may be one of my favorite songs of the year so far. How to describe? Brilliant songwriting and execution. Ryan Adams without the drug problem. Pretty please can they play at ACL?

stopping genocide

There's a big rally on Darfur in DC this weekend. They have quite an impressive lineup of speakers, and some really awful musical guests.

Honestly, I don't know if it makes a difference if several thousand people show up on the mall to protest. People are starving there, and their food rations were just cut in half. My friend The Diplomat is, well, the diplomat having to track the situation on behalf of our country. From what The Diplomat says, it's a mess. But I'll say this, if Brownback and Obama can agree that something is a problem (not to mention Richard Land and George Clooney), there's really no reason we shouldn't do something about it.

I wonder what it would take to get the same level of interest in the states about the Congo conflict, which has killed 10 times as many people. We have the capacity to end both conflicts if we really wanted to.


Where people starved and hungry for life so empty come and go

"I exist to serve the poor…to serve Christ in his most distressing disguise." - Mother Teresa

a lighter shade of blue

The lake changed color. It was so strange and so sudden - Tuesday morning I sat there eating breakfast, watching the lake change colors in stripes. I thought maybe it was just me until my taxi driver into town took one look at the lake and yelped. Seems it was a surprise to everyone. (This taxi driver, Theo, also asked me if you had to pay a dowry to get married in America, or if it's free. He couldn't believe that it's "free.").

So then it was a question of what happened. It's hard to explain how different things are - Lake Kivu went from being the color of Lake Travis to the color of the Thunsee at Interlaken, or the Caribbean (so I'm told). I thought maybe someone dumped a bunch of chlorine in the lake or something. Finally, Eva told me yesterday that it's due to some algae rising in the lake. It happens every two years or so. Nobody knows why. Anyway, it's absolutely beautiful, if a bit creepy. The turqoise water contrasts with the blue sky, purple mountains, green grass, and bright flowers.

Tuesday night while I was staring at the lake, a storm suddenly rolled in. The sky was so beautiful that I took a picture, but then it started to rain really quickly and I had to jump inside. I didn't think much of it, except that the wind was so high and the temperature dropped really quickly - the wind was so strong that I had to close the windows. But it stopped really quickly. Come to find out Wednesday afternoon that it was a tornado. It formed over the lake and broke up just before hitting land. Yes, a tornado. In central Africa. What a lovely reminder of home, just when I'm feeling a little homesick.

For the record, that brings the total number of (natural) disasters/effects witnessed in the three months I've been in Goma to 3: 1 volcano eruption, 1 earthquake, and 1 tornado. I can't wait to see what a tsunami looks like.

Perhaps I'm being a bit overdramatic. But, seriously. A tornado? Why? As Martin Bell says in this BBC article, it sometimes seems like everything bad is right here in this one little place:

"Sometimes it seems that all the ills of the earth have befallen this one country at one time.

The people need a rescue, a miracle - or at very least a change of fortune - perhaps more than any other.

After all that has happened, it seems unlikely but it has to be possible."

The wind has been really high these last couple of days, whipping up whitecaps in the lake. On my evening walk yesterday, I looked up and saw something I've never seen before: a bird hovering in place. It was surreal. He hardly flapped his wings. I guess he was riding the air coming off the lake. Or the air pushing down from the volcano in the other direction. It's a wonder we didn't have another tornado.

please don't hate me this feeling just won't go away

"The same Constitution that refuses to privilege any religion, including Christianity, protects the rights of Christians to proclaim the gospel to all who will listen. As a result, paradoxically enough, we are a nation of Christians because we are not a Christian nation."

Because I haven't ranted about church-state separation in awhile....

The always dead-on Brent Walker had some great things to say speaking in Texas last week. The above quote comes from the stories (one and two) on his lectures from The Baptist Standard.

And there's a very interesting interview with Stanley Carlson-Thies, who was the first director of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. I got to meet Dr. Carlson-Thies in December 2002 at a conference in Atlanta and spent a good bit of New Year's Eve arguing, I mean, discussing the issues with him. What it came down to for me was that he freely admitted that there was no way to respond to my criticism that I don't want my tax dollars supporting Mormon drug treatment programs, no matter how effective they are. This is the basic problem with using government money to fund faith-based entities - if they're going to be allowed to use that money to preach their faith, you have to be fair to everyone. Dr. Carlson-Thies is a very intelligent guy, and he's well aware of the problems surrounding what he honestly believes to be a good idea.

Meanwhile, oh, to have been a fly on the wall for this one!

chalk one up for the phd's

We don't make unfounded accusations here at Texas in Africa. So I'm not going to join the chorus of scholars and other commentators who've accused the Bush administration of being a bit, um, over-zealous in blocking access to records that should be declassified under the 30-year rule. All I'm going to say is that I'm glad to see that the National Archives will be taking steps to correct an unfortunate situation.

Like some of the researchers in this article, I was shocked when I visited the archives last fall and found that documents had been pulled from files I was searching -- when nothing like that had been the case a year previous. There was nothing of a sensitive nature in the documents I was searching through, and it seemed really ridiculous to suddenly find all these notices that documents had been pulled.

And also that I am looking forward to 2011, when Reagan administration documents related to national security issues should be open to Freedom of Information Act requests.

it doesn't make sense in midland either

Some odds 'n ends on Texas politics, etc.:
  • I am trying not to comment on the stupidity happening down at the legislature this week. (WHY on earth would any politician with half a wit of sense vote for a bill that provides no new money for education given that the most successful primary campaigns were run by Parent PAC, a bunch of angry (mostly Republican) moms and teachers who just want something done?!?! WHY?!?). Oops. So much for not commenting. Just goes to show how completely out-of-touch Craddick et al are with our state. And how their goal has never been to ensure that every child in Texas gets a quality education, and therefore a chance.
  • The Texas Observer has a nice piece on the obvious answer to our problems: a state income tax that would reduce the overall amount of taxes the vast majority of us pay while actually funding our schools. You ought to go hear Senator Elliot Shapleigh talk about this.
  • Meanwhile, Kinky Friedman's new cartoon is really funny once you get to the singing part. Billy Joe Shaver, Bruce Robison, Kelly Willis, and the Dixie Chicks singing "save our friggin' state" - what else do you need in a political ad?
  • Um, plus the best headline ever in the Waco Trib.
  • I totally got a shout-out on one of my favorite recent blog discoveries, Blog Lubbock. Definitely check out this great site on Lubbock politics and life - the logo alone is worth an award.
  • And, just as a reminder, the great apes are not pets or playthings. As a guy from everything's-pfunner-in-Pflugerville apparently pfound out.


you know you're there each and every prayer

Sake is haunting us. The faces of those too-thin, sick children keep me awake at night. I stopped by DOCS to talk to Lyn on Monday and she showed me this verse that had come up in her Bible study on Thursday night. She just said, "this is it."

Proverbs 13:23 "A poor man's field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away."

A famous UNICEF "ambassador of goodwill" (like Angelina Jolie when she's not hiding out in Namibia) visited Goma a few weeks ago. His story is here. The "church hospital" he refers to is DOCS. He was shocked. As you have to be when you see what is going on here while the world is busy elsewhere. One of the most interesting things in his story for me, though, was the note about the pygmies in far North Kivu. He says it's the first time in recorded history they've left the forest. Now, what that means is anybody's guess. Europeans have been traipsing around eastern Congo for 130 years or so. I don't know if anyone wrote down history before that, but the people of central Africa tell stories about their past, and if the pygmies had left the forest before that, you can almost be certain that their oral tradition would have recorded something so unusual. Pygmies just don't leave the forest. They didn't even leave the forest when the war was in full swing and foreign armies were openly operating in the Kivus. The forest and its creatures and plants and secrets defines who they are. But now they've left their homes, their schools, their plants, the graves of their ancestors, their churches, their lives.

Their entire lives have been uprooted.

It's like a private apocalypse. I don't think we can fully understand the scope of what it means to them to have to leave their homes. It does explain, though, why the desparation in their eyes is not just that of people who are starving -- and they are starving. But they're also deeply traumatized, as any of us would be if our entire way of life were ripped out from under us. They're shell-shocked. They're lost.

So here is what we're going to do: we're going to find a way to buy these people a field. It's not their home, and it's not in the forest, but the chiefs with whom we spoke last week said that they're scared to go back. What they want for their communities is some stability, and the ability to start over, in a safer place, where their children will have a chance. If they have land, they can build permanent homes. They can cultivate enough land to feed themselves, and maybe to produce enough to be able to sell something in the market. More importantly, if we can secure the title to their land, and if the war ever really ends and things like microcredit banking services ever make their way to this forgotten corner of the planet, they'll be able to borrow against the land in the future. That's the kind of thing that makes a real difference, that makes it possible for mothers to have their babies in a hospital and children to go to school and for the smartest one or two to go to university.

A local engineer calculated that they'd need 7 hectacres to be able to support all those families. Ciza and some other guys went out to look for land to buy around Sake. A hectacre of land in Sake costs $300. So we have to find $2100. At least. If we find more money, we can help the communities to buy seeds and farming tools and cooking pots and sleeping mats and some medicine to help that sick baby. $2100. I find it difficult to believe that such a small sum is the difference between death and hope.

The missions committe at my church just happens to be chaired by The Librarian, who is trying to see if the committee can come up with some or all of that sum. There are a lot of other important priorities in the missions budget, I know. $2100. Injustice sweeps away a poor man's means of providing food for his family. The God of abundance makes us witnesses to the difference $2100 could make. What will we do?


if we could see beyond the clouds

A good friend sent this link to Amy Butler's post on Allie. Amy is the pastor of Calvary Baptist in Washington. Gray, she calls it. The color of the sky, the hospital, the morgue, our hearts.

Gray is the only way to talk about this weekend. As my pastor emailed, "It doesn't matter that 'we all knew this was going to happen' because her death is just terribly unjust." I know she's not hurting anymore, and I'm glad for that, but it's just not... I don't know what.

It's unjust. It's gray. It's heartbreaking. You look at all the guestbook messages about Allie's life and you realize -- she really lived. Even The Advisor (about whose relationship to human emotions I sometimes wonder) asked me to send her condolences. The Advisor saw the life in that student who missed too many classes but never gave up and earned her degree in four years despite it all.

The worst part is over. (The worst part was talking to the CPP on Friday night about what outfit she needed to pick out for Allie to be buried in. How do you do that?) The funeral is today and they will bury Allie and remember her life well lived and everyone will figure out a way to go on and the sky will be blue again. Someday.

Here's the thing about being so far from home when something awful happens. You have friends, and they try to comfort you, and they aren't embarrassed when you cry in the internet cafe, even if it happens three days in a row. And they try to make you laugh and remind you that God is faithful. And it's good. But it's not the same. They don't know you like your friends back home. You don't share memories and stories and context. Everything here is so transient - people come for two months of research and then they leave, or they come for two years and their contract expires, or they were here four years ago and are just back for a weekend visit.

Some people are cut out for that kind of life. I am not one of them.


"The one true freedom in life is to come to terms with death, and as early as possible, for death is an event that embraces all our lives. And the only way to have a good death is to lead a good life.... The more we do God's will, the less unfinished business we leave behind when we die."
-- William Sloane Coffin (June 1, 1924 - April 12, 2006)


a living prayer

Allie's gone. I talked to the CPP last night. They've had a rough couple of days. Please keep Allie's family in your prayers. The funeral is on Tuesday at 10:30 at Calvary in Waco.

Allie was my close friend's future sister-in-law. She was my student at UT last year. She turned 23 years old last month. She was full of life, even as she learned the hardest way possible that life isn't fair and that there are diseases that will take away your life too soon. She knew she would die, but the doctors said she could live to 30 or 40. She made it to 23.

We were supposed to have dinner when I was in Washington last November, but schedules didn't work out, so I didn't get to see her again. My heart is breaking for her, her family, and for being so far away and unable to get home to be there for them.


odds 'n ends

  • This is the stupidest headline ever. What do you do with Vince Young? You give him the ball.
  • Why anyone is suprised about Baylor's declaration is beyond me.
  • ACL's lineup ain't looking too bad: Tom Petty, Matisyahu (who puts on a great in-store, and hopefully a good festival set as well), and John Mayer are among the latest confirmed acts appearing.
My money's on Pearl Jam as the big headliner, as is Austinist's. Hello? They have a new album to promote AND they'll be appearing at several Tom Petty shows. It's too easy.

words aren't enough to express how sad this is

My attorney occasionally asks if I've seen any pygmies here in Congo. I'm not sure why the idea of pygmies is amusing to him, but, well, that's how it is. Well, Attorney, yesterday I saw some pygmies. But before we get to that, an explanation.

Mr. Florida's dissertation is about the real problem in the eastern Congo, which is the dispute over who gets to be considered a citizen and who can rightfully claim ownership of the good land here. It's a mess to figure out, but what you need to know is that, especially during the war, people had their land seized from them with no warning, others had to leave as refugees, and both groups are currently going back to homes to find that their land has been confiscated. It costs $30,000 to have a land case heard at the provincial tribunal in Goma, so most of these people have no recourse whatsoever.

This is what happens when you live in a country in a part of the world where, until very, very recently, land ownership was communal. It wasn't a matter of holding title to the plot of land your house sits on – communities owned their land as a group, with the local chief and elders deciding who got to farm what land. The land, though, is hugely significant to the community's identity. It's where they're from, what they live off of, and where their ancestors are buried. Losing it is tantamount to losing part of your identity.

It turns out that pygmies are getting kicked off their land in the Masisi, just like many other people. Masisi is the idyllic, super-fertile territory at the top of the mountains. By all accounts, it looks like Switzerland. Most of the good cheese we get here in Goma comes from the Masisi.

At DOCS/Heal Africa, they'd heard about a group of displaced pygmies who were in terrible shape, so Lyn asked Mr. Florida and I to go check it out with Ciza (say "cheese-uh"), who works at DOCS. Apparently the World Food Programme had heard about their situation and taken a load of food out there, but otherwise they don't appear to have had too much else. So we went off to Sake, 27 kilometers to the northwest of Goma, on Thursday morning.

Sake is a town of about 38,000. It's absolutely gorgeous there - the town sits on the edge of a bay that forms the northwestern corner of Lake Kivu. It's the first big town at the base of the mountains and so is a trade center and a place that lots of people pass through. It's also a place where lots of internally displaced people fled when trouble happened in the Masisi, when war broke out in Goma, and when the volcano erupted. They're used to having refugees around, although they lack the capacity to deal with them.

Our visit took most of the day. We went to talk with the "Chef du Territoire," who's kindof like the county commissioner, and his staff, then visited a church to talk to a pastor about what they could do to help the deplaced people. The pictures of children above are from the neighborhood around the church. They'd all come in close for a picture, then scream and run away when it flashed. (Actually, some of them screamed and ran away when the camera appeared.)

After that, we stopped by DOCS Sake Transit Center, where women from the Masisi and surrounding areas who have been raped come for counseling and to get referrals to the DOCS hospital in Goma. These women have seen the worst side of humanity, but they were still welcoming and enjoyed seeing their own pictures on our digital cameras. This woman named her baby Baraka, which means blessing. Think about that for a minute. She has more courage than I ever will.

After that, we visited the Health Center for the Sake health zone, which is basically a medical clinic, hospital, and feeding center in one. Here's a picture of the delivery room in the maternity ward (I was informed by the men that this was my place to visit.). I don't want to hear any complaints from anyone ever again about the varying quality of delivery rooms in the U.S. – at least it's not a rusty metal bed. And no one is sterilizing and re-using plastic gloves (look closely at the upper right-hand corner of this picture). We're not even going to talk about the floor. Let's just say I was glad that I chose not to wear sandals yesterday. We learned some disturbing statistics about Sake from a young doctor there. 50% of women in Sake choose to have their babies at the hospital. In a town of 38,000, there were about 800 births in 2005. The number of babies who died in childbirth when the delivery happens at the hospital last year was 8. For babies born in homes, it was 15. So why do mothers not have their babies at the hospital, where the chances that their baby will survive are much higher? Because it costs $8 to have your baby delivered at Sake Health Center. And $8 is more than 16 days' wages for most people here, maybe more than that. No one keeps statistics on the average daily income of the residents of a small market town in the eastern Congo.

$56 could have saved 7 babies' lives.

The Health Center was scary and sad, but the doctors there are proud of the center they have – it's much more modern that what you'd normally find in a third-world hospital, and they work hard and keep detailed records. They are feeding a huge number of people in Sake. Here's a picture of some women preparing Unimix, the UN's standard malnutrition cure. It's a high calorie, high-protein flour with vitamin supplements. You find it in the world's worst places. Sake qualifies.

Finally, at 3pm, we set out to visit the thing we'd come to see. I've seen some pretty awful things in my life, but this is one of the worst. We visited two encampments of pygmies. They've had to find places to stay in a city where the chef du territoire told us there's no land. The first group have built these little shelters. They told us their very sad story about how their group came to be in Sake.

There's no telling how hungry they were. The candy and cookies we brought for the children disappeared within five minutes of distribution. They were just gone, all of a sudden. They can't afford transportation into town to get health care, so they just suffer with whatever they catch. I talked briefly with a mother whose baby was clearly sick – he had a white and green growth coming out of his ear. It looked like mold on the food you forgot at the back of the refrigerator. What's that mama going to do?

Then we went over to the other group, which is living in a church. 432 of them, to be precise. Four hundred and thirty-two people trying to survive in this tiny little church, which looks like it could fall over any second. (And, yes, the church has a drum set.) They have to vacate the sanctuary during the day, but the women cook what food they have in the church's small meeting room. They sleep on straw, like the little boy in the picture below right showed me before running away when he saw the flash from my camera.

What will they do? How will they survive? If someone doesn’t help these groups, the simple answer is: they won't. We got back to DOCS and talked with Lyn, who wants to try to raise funds to buy the groups plots of land so they can start farming, and thus feeding themselves. Lyn looked at me and said, "You look stunned." Yep. She also said, "Now you know why God brought you to this place." I don't know. I don't know what will be done, but something has to be done, because these precious children will not live if they have to live like this much longer. I can tell you this: writing a dissertation seems pretty meaningless right now.

Mr. Florida and I walked out of the DOCS compound and saw the pastor from church, who took one look at me and said I looked emotional. He and Lyn both have hope. They've seen the worst here and know that the only way to deal with it is to come up with a plan, get the money from somewhere, and help people to move on with their lives. Oh, and pygmies? They're pretty much like the rest of us. They want their children to be healthy and to have safe water to drink and enough food to eat and to go to school and to have a chance.


crumbling ladder tears don't always shine down your shoulders

This has been a pretty crazy week. With so many visitors in town, it's been fun to have new people to talk to. I'm also doing some work for Heal Africa that's been quite the adventure. Explain this to me: Goma has so little healthcare, but there's a statistics bureau of the provincial health inspector's office that can provide a detailed list of statistics having to do with infant mortality and early childhood health - in TWENTY-FOUR HOURS. Nothing in Africa can be done in 24 hours. How does this work?!? And why can't the energy and enthusiasm of the statisticians be applied to actually getting needed medication to the population?

(The above picture, of Allie at Gorilla Ben's office, gives you an idea of how this town looks like Roman ruins or something.)

Other than that, I've been helping show people around town and generally enjoying hanging out with some Americans for a few days. Suzy and I went shopping at the big market on Monday because she wanted to get some fabric for a dress. I had a seamstress there hem a piece of cloth I've had for awhile to use as a scarf. There's a whole area of women and men with hand-cranked sewing machines in the market. They'll make a garment for you on the spot, or, in my case, hem two yards of fabric for 25 cents. The guys who change money for me at the market were really excited to see Suzy, because they're always asking me to find them a "white girl" (their words, not mine) to marry. Suzy told them she was married, but, not surprisingly, that didn't stop them, even the married guy. Sigh.

Suzy and Sam left Goma on Tuesday after we all had lunch at the only place in Goma where you can get a cheap lunch, this Lebanese restaurant at the old colonial grand hotel, which is now a total dump except for the Lebanese restaurant. Every expat with an office on that side of town has lunch at the Lebanese place. Anyway, Allie, Gorilla Ben, and I all went back to work and then met up at Gorilla Ben's office to see the gorillas. Gorilla Ben works for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Goma and had told us that they had a gorilla sanctuary at their office. What Allie and I didn't expect was to see gorillas in the parking lot the second we drove through the gate, but there they were. And were they cute! Unfortunately, these young females have already experienced too much trauma in their short lives - the oldest one, here, is about 2 1/2 years old. Gorilla Ben told us that the fund got the three gorillas by confiscating them from people who are trying to illegally trade them - basically, they just take the gorillas when they find them. The littlest one is less than a year old. She was confiscated from the governor. That's right, the governor. So they named her after him. Serefuli was showing off for Allie and me by beating on her chest and the tree, and by swinging from the trees. It was pretty funny - the light wasn't good for getting great pictures, unfortunately.

What amazed me about the gorillas is how expressive they are. These are lowland gorillas with a fancy name I can't find on the internet, not the mountain gorillas that you find in Rwanda, but it doesn't make much different. They watch you and look at you like they know what you're thinking. The oldest one kept trying to get away from her caretaker (there are men who work for the fund that watch and guard the gorillas 24 hours a day) and would act like she was being subtle, looking for vegetation, and then take off towards us as her caretaker grabbed her arm and walked her back over to the ledge. The gorillas are really incredible. I read Dian Fossey's Gorillas in the Mist a few weeks ago, and could only really think that she knew a little too much about the gorillas, but it was so interesting to see in person the behavior she described. Allie and Oliver went to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda on Saturday. She said it was pretty incredible - these huge silverback gorillas come stand right next to you. It sounds like an amazing experience; Wilco Ben and I are talking about going to see them next week. Hopefully it will work out, because as cool as the gorillas in Goma are, it will be pretty amazing to see gorillas in the wild.

I asked Gorilla Ben what they will do with these gorillas and he told me that they really don't know. All three gorillas are female, and since an existing gorilla group won't accept them until they are mature enough for the silverback leader to mate with them. Even then, their chances of survival in the wild are pretty slim. It's heartbreaking that people try to traffic in endangered species, especially in a place like Congo where it's really hard for conservationists to protect them. They have to do it all. Next week I am supposed to interview a guy who works for the Frankfurt Zoo, but who lately has been training commando units to protect the Virunga National Park and its animals. Think about that for a minute - this guy is your typical zookeeper, friendly and kind to animals, but he's training paramilitary forces to use lethal weapons to protect the gorillas and other wildlife in the park. Incredible. But it's the only way to protect these rare species, which only live in the Congo/Uganda/Rwanda border region. Yet another example of the far-reaching effects of a total lack of state authority. Nothing is safe here.


congratulations are in order

'tis the season for best wishes to friends who've made big decisions about The Future:
  • to Tasha and Evan who got engaged over the weekend and set up a website to prove it. (You should totally link to Evan's website and check out his excellent photography on Flickr. And mock him for posting his honors thesis online.)
  • to Brian, who's off to CUNY to become an actual Doctor of Philosophy. (In Philosophy.)
  • to Melissa, who's leaving the sunny south to brave Chicago and doctoral studies in theology at Loyola.
  • to Jason and Pamela, Mississippi friends from Up North who are moving to Texas (!) this summer so J can be the missions pastor at a big church and so their first kiddo can be born in God's country. Hopefully the church Up North is monitoring its hymnal supply - P always steals one before they leave a church and has quite the collection of shape-note songbooks and the like. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to meeting up with Jason and the daughter of a certain former Baylor University president in Nairobi in three weeks or so. They'll be on the big Buckner trip; I'll be seeing friends and shopping. So excited!
  • to Actually an Actuary and his blushing bride on their upcoming move to the big city. Don't forget us those of us who'll still be out here in the middle.

so happy i can't stop crying

things that make me alternately sad and happy:


This is the best sign in Goma. We all crack up every time we see it, but there are usually cops around so you can't take a picture. Not so on Easter Sunday - the only people who yelled at Allie and me as we got this shot were the moto-taxi drivers parked below it. As Gorilla Ben said, "If you don't want your picture taken, you shouldn't park underneath the funniest sign in town."
Translation - Turbo King: An Affair of Men

easter weekend, part four: nights only peace and rest

I had to head back to Karibu after that to get ready for my friend Gisele's birthday party at Chez HiFi (you'd say "high-fi," but here it's "hee-fee"), which was an experience unto itself. Gisele is awesome and I figured it would be fun. Turns out I was the only expat she invited, and the only expat at HiFi. I wasn't ten seconds in the door before a guy walked up and said, "I love you." But it was fun, especially when Gisele decided it was time to dance. The DJ very thoughtfully decided to play the hit song in Africa this year, "African Queen," while we were on the floor, so everyone at HiFi watched. It was something. Here's her friend dancing.

It's a treat to have a camera available at a party, so Gisele wanted lots of pictures. Hopefully I'll be able to get them printed in Nairobi; if not, we'll see if I can't get them to C and E the next time they're in the states. Here's one of her and her boyfriend – she wanted a solemn shot.

Gisele and her friends found a moto-taxi to take me home, so there I was, zipping along under a sky that defies description. To the northwest, the volcano was glowing red, overhead we could see the Milky Way, and to the south, over the lake, flashes of lightning from a huge electrical storm lit everything up every few seconds. I got home, made some French onion soup, and the ipod hit the perfect song just as the sky and the power dropped out in a heavy tropical storm. What an Easter.

more fissure pictures

This is the big crack in the earth where the lava started flowing after it shot up in the plume over there.

Ben, Oliver, and a Congolese kid climb to the top of the plume.

Mount Mikeno in the distance

Sam, Oliver, and some kids on the crest of the plume.

Yours truly with Nyiragongo -- the source of the lava flow -- in the distance. These lava chambers run under all of Goma, meaning fissures like this could happen anywhere the next time Nyira erupts.

This was a pretty good thing to see on Easter. Life comes back.


easter Weekend, part trois: i'll say my prayers closer to the sky

After lunch, Gorilla Ben, Sam, Suzy, Oliver, Allie, and I decided to go out to visit the volcano fissure, which is just outside of Goma. Totally wild. See, when the volcano erupted in Goma in 2002, lava didn’t come spewing out the top of the cone like you'd expect. Instead, it opened a second crater on its side, which caused some damage, and, elsewhere, split open the earth. The fissure we visited is the main source of the huge lava flow that ran through the center of Goma.

It is surreal. The landscape looks like the moon, and the lava rocks crumble beneath your feet when you walk. There are huge cracks in the ground, and then this big hill where the lava shot up.

This all happened on property belonging to my friend Eva's family. Imagine that for a minute – you're sitting on your porch one day, and all of a sudden the earth opens up and starts spewing lava into the sky. You can get a sense of how high it was from this picture of Sam.

At first, there were only two children following us around, but of course they multiplied like crazy, as children always do when you are a foreigner doing something strange in Africa. The guys climbed to the top of the lava hill and got the kids to dance and goof off, while Allie and I talked to this little guy, whose name is Justin. He was cute and polite and very curious as to why we wanted to climb all over the rocks. Most of the children out there spoke Kinyarwanda, which is very interesting - that makes them outsiders in the DRC, even though they were probably born here.

easter weekend, part deux: we'll feel the breeze caress

Sunday my alarm didn't wake me up, so I was a little bit late to church. Not that it matters – people are regularly an hour or more late to the three-hour service. Transportation is a problem on Sunday mornings. But today the place was packed, so I was seated on the back row, with all the mothers with small babies. So I didn't get quite all of the sermon due to the fact that someone else's child was on my lap. But the sermon ended when the pastor started to sing, acapella, in French, "I'd rather have Jesus / than silver or gold / I'd rather have him than riches untold." Which means a lot when much of your congregation is undernourished and struggling to survive. I've always loved that hymn and was so glad to get to sing it on Easter Sunday, but I'm never going to hear it the same way again.

Another thing that was cute and absolutely hilarious was the youth presentation, which lasted about 45 minutes. They've just finished their first trimester of the youth ministry, which is divided into two classes: ages 3-8 and ages 9-15. At first they sang songs and it was pretty much like what you see at home when the children's choir performed. But then the teenage girls started doing slam poetry about Jesus. It was great, but they were so topped by the next "act" – a group of 4 boys and one girl, all about 8 years old. The choir sang this reggae song and the kids, one by one, rapped, mostly about the devil. Everyone laughed at the boys, but the girl brought the house down. She rocked.

After church, I headed outside to meet up with everyone for lunch. Here are some pictures from hanging out, including the church and some of the kids who live on the church grounds with their mothers, who are all recovering from being victims of sexual violence. They all know and love Mr. Florida and sometimes follow him home, which involves walking about a mile there and back. E had some candy to hand out, which of course they loved.

About the same time, I met Sam and his girlfriend Suzy, who both work in Rwanda and had come down for the holiday weekend. Suzy is a German medical student and is doing research at the DOCS training center in Rwanda. Sam is from South Carolina and runs a couple of businesses in Kigali. First thing he says to me: "Is that a Southern accent?" We of course had quite the time. The Lusis, who run DOCS, invited us all to lunch at Karibu, but we had some time to kill and therefore went back to the Lusi house, which is where Sam and Suzy are staying.

The Lusis live in paradise. Seriously. They have this amazing compound with several houses on it, where they provide hospitality to all kinds of visitors. Here's a picture of their outdoor living room where you can just hang out and watch the day go by, as Sam was doing in the hammock here. It was a perfect day in Goma – blue sky, blue lake, and nothing but sunshine, and so the one guy who has a jet ski was out on that, as was the MONUC patrol boat. (What they were patrolling is anyone's guess. It's not like anyone's going to attack Goma from the water. More likely they were working on their tans.)

Gorilla Ben lives Chez Lusi (this is the Gorilla Ben who dated their daughter, moved to Congo for her, got unceremoniously dumped at Christmas, and is still living with her parents) and eventually came down to the outdoor living room where we all just hung out for a couple of hours. It was so nice. Below is the view. Incredible. If I didn't know better, I'd've sworn we were in Italy. But no, this is Lake Kivu, with Idjwi Island in the distance.

Mrs. Lusi also has the most unbelievable garden – it's a proper English garden, smack in the middle of Goma. Gorgeous, although she apparently has trouble getting her staff to water the plants – they see no need, even in the dry season.

The Lusis treated us all (Gorilla Ben, Sam, Suzy, me, Mr. Florida, C, E, and two Americans who work in Zambia and who were also here for the weekend, Oliver and Allie) to lunch at Karibu. It was fun and nice to get to hang out with some Americans who are my age. Oliver went to Princeton and Allie went to Brown, so I got to hear lots of jokes about New Haven. Nice to know that some things transcend geography. No, they're both really cool. Allie's finishing med school but took the year off to work on an HIV/AIDS grant in Lusaka, and Oliver's doing something similar before starting med school next year.

(It's a Small World Alert: Allie apparently lived down the hall from David Pressman their freshman year at Brown (her: "tall, dark, curly hair?" Me: "uh-huh." – how is THAT for blast-from-the-past, Franklin High kids? (Remember when David played Hitler in Carl and Keith's video for history class? Did they end up calling it Goldfuhrer or Never Say Heil Again? I only remember the debate over the title, and that deep down they all knew they'd never top Aqueduct Dogs from the year before. This is not funny to the rest of you because you don't know that David was one of a very few Jewish students in our school system. Things I have not thought about in awhile!))

Anyway, Allie and Oliver are making me rethink my decision not to go see Victoria Falls on this trip. It would be such a cool way to spend my 28th birthday, no?

I'll post on the rest of Easter weekend tomorrow, with some really cool pictures of our visit to the lava fissure outside Goma.